Book Review: Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

half broke horses

Rating: B/ I can’t remember the last time I’ve had such mixed feelings about a character as I had about  the tough-as-nails protagonist of Walls’ biographical novel of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. As for this book’s story, it’s pretty much more of the same; don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean ‘more of the same’ as a bad thing necessarily. Anyone who has read a book by Jeannette Walls knows she tells a good and compelling yarn, whether it be mostly true (as is the case with her memoir of her neglectful upbringing, The Glass Castle) or straight-up fiction (like her also-delightful novel, The Silver Star,) but if you’ve read her other two books and expect something drastically different with this one, you would be wrong. Well, they say ‘write what you know…’ Apparently Walls knows a lot about childhoods that curl the toes of anyone with any protective instinct toward children whatsoever. As for her family history, it’s astonishing that any of the Walls children made it to adulthood.

Lily was a rancher who didn’t believe in coddling kids in the least, and looking at her childhood, you can see why. Her dad was a brain injury victim with a hair trigger temper and a speech impediment who taught her how to ride horses, even those who would just as soon throw her off and trample her, before she was out of diapers. She was expected to pretty much take care of herself and hold her own on the ranch since early childhood, and she grew up with a fierce individualist streak that she passed on to her own kids. But there is a fine line between letting kids take their share of hard knocks and outright child neglect, and I think Lily crossed that line more often than she would have have liked to admit. Just look at her daughter, who grew up to be be the mother of Jeannette Walls and the absolute horror show portrayed in Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle. For someone who was a somewhat overprotected as a child, reading Walls’ books are like looking into a whole other world for me.

Although I was officially out of sympathy with Lily by the end of this book, you have to admit she lived a fascinating life. That’s what this book is all about; the toughness of one woman who was ahead of her times and the adventures she lived out, as well as the heartbreak she experienced at several defining moments of her life, including the suicide of a loved one and the betrayal of her first husband. In a way, Half Broke Horses is kind of a love letter to a woman who although Jeannette didn’t know very well, had an amazing story in her own right. The writing is straightforward, compelling, and does a wonderful job of bringing this person to life. For me, the book was just a little bit boring at times because I read Walls’ other books and this one pretty much seemed like more of the same. If you haven’t read her other books, though, this one will seem perfectly fascinating without a trace of been-there-done-that.

The problem I had with this book was that I found Lily hard to sympathize with due to her continual neglect of her children’s welfare, and I could’t sympathize with her daughter Rosemary either knowing the way Rosemary eventually treats her own kids! At least in The Glass Castle you got the impression that the Walls kids broke free of their parents’ neglect, so it was a little more positive (while still being a bit darker at the same time.)  Since I had read The Glass Castle before I read this, I couldn’t help hating Rosemary a little, as sweet and innocuous as she seemed.

And while at times I admired Lily, her parenting techniques were a little too screwed-up for me. Jeannette Walls acts like her parents and her grandmother were these great people, but they didn’t know how to take care of a kid worth shit, nor did they seem like they cared to learn. This element of the book left a sour taste in my mouth; between this and The Glass Castle, I felt like I was watching the cycle of truly awful parenting getting passed on from one generation to another. Granted, both are fascinating books, but I just wanted to bitch slap the Walls parents and Lily sometimes. I get the impression that Jeannette Walls hasn’t entirely come to terms with how much damage these people caused. I guess I felt this book seemed a bit too upbeat despite the Walls legacy of child neglect. Still, it is a book I would recommend, the author has a gift at telling an excellent story that keeps you flipping the pages, even if this book seemed a little same old, same old after reading her two other books, one of them quite recently before this one.

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